EPA waste data release 12 September 2022. Latest reference year 2020 (data subject to Eurostat Validation).
Packaging comes with most of the products we buy for our homes and businesses. It protects products during transport, keeps them fresh and provides product information to consumers. Once the goods are unpacked, the packaging become waste.
Ireland generated 1.12 million tonnes of packaging waste in 2020. This was the fourth year in a row that Ireland’s packaging waste generation exceeded one million tonnes. Ireland met all current EU recycling and recovery targets in 2020, however new EU recycling targets for 2025 and 2030 will require further improvements in Ireland’s recycling performance, in particular for plastic.
View our factsheet on: Packaging waste in Ireland in 2020
Ireland produced over 1 million tonnes of packaging waste in 2020, for the fourth year in a row.
Ireland generated 1,118,596 tonnes of packaging waste in 2020, a decrease of less than one percent (6,321 tonnes) on 2019 and the fourth year in a row that Ireland generated over one million tonnes of packaging waste. As shown in Figure 1 and Table 1, this included:
- 450,000 tonnes of paper & cardboard (40%),
- 306,000 tonnes of plastic (27%)
- 182,000 tonnes of glass (16%)
- 100,000 tonnes of wood (9%)
- 67,000 tonnes of metal (6%)
- 11,500 tonnes of textiles (1%).
Figure 1 Types and percentages of materials inpackaging waste in 2020EPAPaper & Cardboard: 40.3%Paper & Cardboard: 40.3%Plastic: 27.4%Plastic: 27.4%Glass: 16.3%Glass: 16.3%Wood: 9.0%Wood: 9.0%Ferrous Metal: 3.4%Ferrous Metal: 3.4%Aluminium: 2.6%Aluminium: 2.6%Other: 1.0%Other: 1.0%Highcharts.com
The general trend in packaging waste generation in Ireland correlates with economic indicators such as GNI (Figure 2), both of which showed an upward trend between 2013 and 2019 before GNI dipped in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The data highlight that Ireland has not yet decoupled economic activity and waste generation.
To achieve environmental and climate benefits, we need to reduce the overall amount of waste generated; this is because the production, transport and management of packaging waste uses up finite resources and causes carbon emissions. Currently there are no EU limits on overall waste generation or targets aimed at preventing waste. However the EU is likely to introduce targets in the coming years aimed at increasing the use of reusable packaging, which may support a reduction in packaging waste generation.
Reusable packaging is one method to tackle high levels of waste generation. In 2022 Member States were required to report on reusable packaging to the European Commission for the first time (data for reference year 2020). According to data compiled by Repak, almost 8,000 tonnes of reusable packaging were placed on the Irish market in 2020. This represented just 1% of all packaging placed on the market, meaning that the remaining 99% consisted of single-use packaging. Examples of reusable packaging include wooden pallets, kegs, IBCs, trays, plastic boxed trays and buckets.
On this basis of multiple rotations of use, almost 72,000 tonnes of single-use packaging waste were avoided via repeat use of 8,000 tonnes of reusable packaging in Ireland in 2020. According to Repak data, wood is the material stream with the highest level of reuse in Ireland, followed by ferrous metals and then plastic. There is a thriving demand for wood pallets, which are reused and repaired for reuse as a matter of course.
By 31 December 2024, the European Commission shall examine data on reusable packaging provided by Member States with a view to considering the feasibility of setting quantitative targets on reuse of packaging to promote this sector.
Most of Ireland’s packaging waste was recycled in 2020, but there are large variations in recycling rates across the different packaging waste streams.
Ireland recycled 62% of total packaging waste in 2020, exceeding the current EU target of 55% (see Figure 3). However, this EU target will increase to 65% in 2025 and 70% by 2030, which will require improvements in Ireland’s level of packaging recycling in the years ahead.
Recycling is better for the environment than disposal to landfill or energy recovery because it reduces the natural resources and energy used to produce new products and keeps valuable materials in circulation. For example, products made from recycled aluminum use 95% less energy than those made using virgin aluminum.
YearPercentageFigure 3. Percentage recovery and recycling, 2009 to2020Source: EPARecovery rate %Recycling rate %Recovery targetRecycling target20092010201120122013201420152016201720182019202020252030050100Highcharts.com
Recycling rates and targets for individual packaging waste streams are shown in Table 2 and discussed below.
Glass: with a recycling rate of 84% in 2020, Ireland is already achieving compliance with both the 2025 and 2030 EU recycling targets of 70% and 75%.
Paper & cardboard: with a recycling rate of 78% in 2020, Ireland is already achieving compliance with the 2025 EU recycling target of 75%. Improvements will be needed to achieve the 2030 recycling target of 85%.
Wood: with a recycling rate of 48% in 2020, Ireland is already surpassing both the 2025 and 2030 EU recycling targets of 25% and 30%. Allowable wood recycling includes recycling into compressed board and composting.
Metals: with an overall metal recycling rate of 71% in 2020, an increase from 69% in 2019, Ireland is already surpassing the 2025 EU recycling target of 50%.
- The recycling rate for ferrous metals was 79% in 2020, surpassing the 2025 EU target of 70% but slightly below the 2030 EU target of 80%.
- The recycling rate for aluminium was 59% in 2020, surpassing the 2025 EU target of 50% and only slightly below of the 2030 EU target of 60%.
Plastics: with a recycling rate of 29% in 2020 (up from 28% in 2019), Ireland will face significant challenges in meeting the 2025 and 2030 EU plastic recycling targets of 50% and 55%. The EU average was 41% in 2019 with ten Member States recycling more than half of their plastic packaging waste. Ireland sent almost two-and-a-half times more plastic packaging waste for energy recovery in 2020 than was recycled.
Achieving the sizeable improvements in plastic recycling rates needed over the next few years will necessitate urgent implementation of the policy measures contained in the Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy
A recent EPA study on the attitudes and behaviours of society in Ireland indicates broad support to tackle the amount of plastic we use with 81% “willing to take steps to reduce their plastic waste even if impacts on convenience and costs”.
Total recovery of packaging waste was 94%
In addition to the 690,613 tonnes of packaging waste that was recycled in 2020, a further 32% or 354,365 tonnes of packaging waste was sent for energy recovery at either municipal waste incinerators or cement kilns that co-incinerate packaging material to generate energy. This compared with 33% in 2019 and 28% in 2018. Ireland’s total recovery of packaging waste (via recycling and energy recovery) stood at 94% in 2020 (Figure 3).
Ireland is heavily reliant on exporting packaging waste abroad for treatment
Of the packaging material that was recycled in 2020, almost all plastic (92%) and paper/cardboard (99%) was exported abroad for recycling (Table 1). In contrast, most glass (86%) and wood packaging (97%) recycling took place in Ireland. Overall, of the 1,118,596 tonnes of packaging waste generated in Ireland in 2020, just 18% (182,321 tonnes) was recycled in Ireland, mainly glass and wood (Table 1).
- Table 1 Waste packaging generation and treatment 2020
- Table 2 Ireland’s 2020 recycling rates compared with EU targets for 2025 & 2030
Reversing the rising trend in packaging waste generation and improving Ireland’s packaging recycling rates will require timely implementation of the policy commitments in Ireland’s Waste Action Plan for Circular Economy and recently enacted Circular Economy Act 2022 including:
- the mandatory segregation and incentivised charging regime for commercial waste
- the introduction of a waste recovery levy
- new financial and regulatory measures to drive the diversion of more waste to recycling
- the continued development of deposit-return schemes
- restrictions or outright bans certain single-use plastics
- the introduction of a virgin plastic levy
- the continued rollout of eco-modulation pricing to fund the collection and recycling of higher quality packaging materials
- supports for increased use of recycled materials in plastic packaging to enhance the market value of post-consumer PET
- a study examining options to reduce the use of single use packaging in the sale of fruit and vegetables.
 The EU Single Use Plastics Directive requires that plastic bottles contain 25% post-consumer recycled content by 2025
Ireland’s packaging waste generation and treatment figures are compiled by EPA using data obtained from waste operators (collectors and facilities), local authorities and waste brokers annually. Relevant characterisation factors are applied to the data for mixed waste streams to estimate the proportion of packaging based on the EPA’s most recent waste characterisation studies. The data are cross-checked against data held by the National Waste Collection Permit Office and data reported to Repak, while exports are cross-checked against data from the National Transfrontier Shipment Office. Estimates for unmanaged waste are based on CSO data from the National Household Survey.
In compiling the 2020 packaging data for Ireland, new European Commission calculation rules and reporting requirements were implemented:
- Non-target Material: In accordance with Article 6c 1 (a) of Commission Implementing Decision (EU) 2019/665, Member States must ensure that only packaging waste that enters a recycling operation (e.g. production process of new product) is counted as recycled and that any non-target materials are excluded. For Ireland this is mainly relevant to plastic packaging waste that is exported for recycling materials (e.g. paper labels on plastic bottles). We consider the impact of non-target materials to be negligible for paper and metal. To address the presence of non-target in plastic material streams, we derived an estimate of the average contribution of labels and glue to the mass of plastic packaging waste entering a recycling process and applied this estimate (1% of total recycled tonnes) for the first time in reference to the 2020 data. This change in calculation rules resulted in a reduction of 900 recycled tonnes but was not large enough to cause a change to the recycling rate. As part of the ongoing EPA 2022 Waste Characterisation, a study on labels is being carried out, which will provide a more robust estimate next year.
- Composites: Article 6c(2) requires Member States to report composite packaging waste according to its component materials, in cases where a material type makes up at least 5% of the total mass of a unit of composite packaging. We estimated the total tonnage of composite packaging material arising in 2020 using factors from the 2018 EPA municipal waste characterisation study. We then applied breakdown’s provide by Repak on the average percentage composition of composite packaging waste (paper, plastic, aluminium and steel). This change in methodology did not result in any change to the individual recycling rates for plastic, paper, aluminium or steel.
- Reuse: Commission Implementing Decision (EU) 2019/665 also introduced a new requirement to report on reusable packaging, specifically reusable packaging placed on the market for the first time and rotations of reusable and sales packaging. The initial data for 2020 on reusable packaging were provided by Repak.
As part of annual reporting under the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive, the EPA submits packaging waste statistics for Ireland to the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications for transmission to Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union. The data are required to be submitted by 30th June of the reference year +2 (i.e. 2020 data were collected and processed in 2021 and submitted in 2022). Following validation by Eurostat, official statistics for Ireland and all Members are published on the Eurostat website as part of the following datasets:
- Packaging waste by waste management operations [env_waspac] https://appsso.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/nui/show.do?dataset=env_waspac&lang=en
- Recycling rates of packaging waste for monitoring compliance with policy targets, by type of packaging [env_waspacr] https://appsso.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/nui/show.do?dataset=env_waspacr&lang=en